"Patriotism," said George Bernard Shaw, "is your conviction this country is superior to all others because you were born in it." I tend to believe he might have offered that with his tongue firmly pressed against the inside of one of his cheeks, but it's just a short hop from that to "my country right or wrong," that's been making quite a comeback as reaction to Colin Kaepernick's refusal to stand for the Star Spangled Banner before pre-season National Football League contests.
The "my country" quote disquiets me. Senator Stephen Decatur of Wisconsin, a man not known for tempered remarks, first said it. It's Carl Schurz's response I strive to uphold: "My country right or wrong; if right to be kept right, if wrong to be set right."
I don't know what you do when the National Anthem is played. We really only have about a minute alone with our thoughts. I tend to think about my Mom's brothers, Jim and John, who both served in the Army (John wounded in Korea before I was born) and my Dad's brothers, George and Jack. George was really Michael (I never understood it either) who was in the Army wave that retook Europe in World War II and Jack was in the Air Force during the Cold War.
Sometimes I think about those with whom I served who died: Jack P in Greenland who drowned on his way to the Ice Cap in the summer and Bruce S and Mike S who fell out of the sky in a helicopter filled with skydivers who all perished.
I think all of them, and each of us had and has a country in our heads and hearts when we see the flag and hear the national anthem and no two of us have or feel the same thing. But I'd hope you, actually all of us, see ourselves as more than just a piece of fabric and some words and a borrowed tune. Adlai Stevenson once offered, "Patriotism is not a short and frenzied outburst of emotion but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime."
I am very grateful for what I have been given and for what I've convinced myself I have earned as an American. And having somehow lived four and sixty years in spaces and places across half this orb, I also recognize that my experience differs from yours and Kaepernick's.
Of course, some settling of contents occurs, our respective mileage varies and quite often the nine o'clock show is entirely different from the seven o'clock but we are all Americans even if we don't always see one another as All-American.
As our own Revolutionary Times were stirring, Samuel Johnson suggested "patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels" and opinions about Kaepernick's action have helped reinforce one or more aspects of that observation. So much for the hope, desire and goal "with liberty and justice for all' with which we conclude our Pledge of Allegiance.
Instead we angrily argue about history, respect, and honor when a professional athlete says, "I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag." That a half-century on, we're still having the same discussions without any effort to create solutions only proves Mark Twain's point, "action speaks louder than words but not nearly as often."
- bill kenny